Herland: A Dystopian Motherland

Recent paperback edition

Recent paperback edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was, for me, one of the more interesting discoveries of the Fantasy & Sci-Fi class in Coursera. I had read Gilman before: her fascinating and highly disturbing short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, to be exact. If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest you do. It’s freely available on Project Gutenberg, as is Herland.

Now, I won’t say that Herland is as accomplished a story as The Yellow Wallpaper. The latter stirs me deeply; it stirs a visceral reaction, which is part horror and part pity. And that’s exactly what its meant to do. It makes us shudder because we see what supposedly ‘benevolent’ subjugation can do to a woman. In Herland, on the other hand, we’re presented with the picture of a world populated only by women. There’s no question of subjugation. Everything runs smoothly and like clockwork and the world is as pretty as a painting. Nevertheless, there are some disturbing aspects to this supposedly ‘perfect’ world, and those are what I chose to write about for my Coursera essay. Read and enjoy!

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book, Herland is presented as a Utopia which is free from disease, corruption, poverty and other vices that mar the rest of human civilization. But is it really the wonderful place that Gilman makes it out to be? Throughout the novel, one finds references to the practice of Eugenics in this nation where women, who are deemed unfit for the task, are prohibited from becoming mothers.

While the basic idea behind this selective motherhood is sound – that only the most capable should ideally be doing a job that comes with so much responsibility – modern democratic sensibilities rebel against it. There’s no denying that a woman’s role goes beyond the bearing and rearing of children, but it is entirely a woman’s prerogative to have children or not. In this matter, Herland citizens behave in a manner that would seem out of place in the kind of ‘Utopia’ that Gilman seems to be describing. After all, the freedom to procreate that we take for granted,  is something that is protected even in the most tyrannical societies. Whether a person is a ‘suitable’ parent is not for the state to judge, unless the child herself is in grave mental and physical danger.

What makes this even more disturbing is that, early in the story, the Herland citizens tell the three visitors that they have ‘bred out’ nuisances like dogs and cattle. Later, we find out that Herland also ‘breeds out’ girls who are seen as posing a danger to the stability of their society.  Would this be allowed to happen in a truly Utopian society?

Just like other stories before it, Herland points towards the dangers of ‘Utopian’ fantasies – whether they are seemingly harmless like Gilman’s or Hitler’s more brutal vision. This may not have been the conclusion that Gilman wished for readers of Herland to draw, but reading the book today does raise these questions.

Frankenstein’s Anti-Enlightenment Argument

English: Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Franken...

English: Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most boring book I read for the Fantasy & Sci-Fi course was Frankenstein. The protagonist was unsympathetic, there were long passages of exposition and repetitive descriptions, and almost every line of dialogue, even that of a young child, began with the exclamation “Ah!”. It was a very laboured and contrived book and I regretted every moment that I spent on it.

Anyway, I’ve pasted my essay on Frankenstein below. It wasn’t a great effort, but mostly because I hated the book so much that I simply couldn’t bring myself to write about it.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein argues against the main principles of the Age of Enlightenment. In the Age of Enlightenment, which was the primary cultural movement for a greater part of the 18th century, great value was placed on reason and the advancement of the human race through scientific development. Nature was to be dominated by man, not the other way round.

On reading Frankenstein, one can clearly see that Shelley is highly critical of the Enlightenment movement’s cold, calculated approach towards the world. Anthropocentricism dominated all cultural and intellectual discourse and it was believed that, thanks to science and technology, humans will advance like never before. Shelley explodes this belief by having her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, succumb to the ultimate hubris: he aspires to become the creator of a more ‘perfect’ race of beings. The ambition fails and Frankenstein sees his folly in trying to do nature’s work.

Shelley even frames her main narrative through the voice of another hubristic man, Walton, who wishes to fight against all odds and reach the Arctic: a desolate land, where man cannot hope to battle against the harshness of nature. Fittingly, the novel ends with Walton giving up his ambition and returning home.

While exposing human folly, Shelley also takes every opportunity to extol the sublime beauties of nature. Many passages are filled with Victor’s description of the natural beauties of his homeland and several times in the story, he finds solace in nature.  At one point, he even gives up his scientific studies and pursues literary studies, and finds “relief” and “consolation”.

In the end, Victor obsessively pursues his enemy, all the way to the arctic. Here, both the creator and his creature, meet their ultimate defeat, but not at each other’s hands. It is finally ruthless and relentless nature that kills Victor and renders his enemy without any purpose in life, thus leading to the latter’s suicide.

Dracula: Triumph of the Masculine

Vampire

The Vampire Deutsch: Der Vampir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before Stephanie Meyer unleashed the first of the Twilight books on us, I liked Vampires. I’ve written about them on this blog before, and also for a column. No, I wouldn’t befriend one and neither would I sleep with one, but the idea of the Vampire was fascinating. Of course, for a long time Vampires have come to stand for repressed human sexuality; even Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, although physically so repulsive, is quite frankly sexual. You don’t even have to read the book too closely to understand that. Ever since then, most writers have treated Vampires in exactly the same way. They’ve gone from having hairy hands and yellow faces to having golden eyes and gleaming bodies, but throughout, they’ve stayed highly sexualized.

Honestly though, it’s not the sexuality of the Vampire that interests me. What I find fascinating is the idea of a being, existing for centuries with nothing to do. Most of us don’t look at it in this way, I suppose, but death is really a blessing and an escape – as long as it comes at the end of a long and fulfilling life. For Vampires, that particular door is closed, unless an especially brave slayer decides to put them out of their misery.  To me, the beautiful Vampires brought to us by Anne Rice, Meyer and Charlaine Harris are not really objects of desire, but really objects of pity. Anne Rice, actually expressed the existential anguish of Vampires pretty well, even though she herself did play a major role in the current sexualization of Vampires.

Anyway, so when I took the course on Fantasy & Sci-Fi through Coursera, I decided I wouldn’t focus on this ‘sexuality’ in Dracula. It was the most obvious take-away from the story. But I also didn’t understand how I could explain any of the existentialist strands in the novel because, frankly, there aren’t any. The novel is quite purely pulp, and with very little rumination. So I decided to take a radical and rather risky approach – Gender Politics. I’m sure a lot of you already know Dracula is a very gendered novel, full of macho men and swooning women. But again, I didn’t want to repeat the obvious, so I argued for Dracula being a symbol of the feminine. I know, it sounds weird. But read on below, and hopefully, you’ll be convinced.

One of the major themes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the triumph of the masculine over the feminine. This interpretation is not limited to the treatment of the characters. Even though the men – Van Helsing, Seward, Godalming, Morris and Harker – rescue the woman – Mina Harker – from the clutches of another male, Count Dracula, their real triumph is over the feminine forces that he represents.

Dracula was written during the Victorian era, when the feminine was represented as weak and irrational, and requiring the control of the stable and rational masculine. The women, Lucy and Mina, fall victim to Dracula’s magnetism. The more feminine Lucy dies, while Mina, with her “man’s brain”, is rescued by her husband and male friends. It is significant that although Jonathan Harker, a man, does almost fall victim to the three female vampires in Transylvania and is kept prisoner by Dracula, he manages to escape by himself.

However, the male vs. female question in Dracula goes beyond this reading. After the European Renaissance, the scientifically and militarily advanced Occident (Western Europe) was seen as representing the masculine, while the ‘mystical’ and backward Orient (Asia and Eastern Europe) was seen as feminine.  Also note that, magical powers and understanding of the supernatural are usually associated with women.

In the light of these considerations, one sees that Dracula, more than Lucy and Mina, represents the feminine in the story.  He is a supernatural being as well as a native of Eastern Europe.  In contrast, his main antagonists are all Western European males (except Morris, a hyper-masculine American), who defeat Dracula by the ultimate act of male dominance over female: penetration. Of course, Dracula is ‘penetrated’ by a stake through his heart, but the symbolic significance of the manner of his defeat cannot be missed.

Since Dracula is set in an age when the ideal female was passive and home-bound, the defeat of a symbolic ‘female’ like Dracula – who dared to be aggressive and venture beyond his ‘home’ – underlines the Victorian belief in the unchallenged superiority of the masculine.

 

Curioser & Curioser

Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second essay from the Fantasy & Sci-fi course was on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. When I first read these books, I was quite young and the stories didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I mean, sure, they were wacky and whimsical and the illustrations by John Tenniel were a joy to look at, but I couldn’t understand why everyone made such a fuss about the Alice books and not about other books which I thought were better, such as the Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton.

However, when I read the book for the course again, I realized that Carroll’s two books are so much better than anything from Enid Blyton’s vast collection. There were many discussions in the Coursera forum about what the books could be talking about, other than an imaginative girl’s adventures in Wonderland, of course. One particularly intriguing theory I came across posited Wonderland as a ‘Womb’, from which Alice emerged as a more mature, thoughtful young girl. Most of the theories, in fact, played with the psycho-sexual implications of the stories, which I thought were interesting, but perhaps a little too obvious, once you’ve read the books more than a couple of times. So I decided to explore an angle that, at least to me, seemed different. You’ll find it below. Do read and let me know if you agree!

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll champions curiosity and easy adaptability. When Alice goes down the rabbit hole, she finds herself in a world where things don’t run the normal way. Despite being occasionally taken by surprise, Alice takes it all in her stride and even manages to preserve her good temper most of the time. This is simply because she is curious, and rather than waste her energy in fighting her peculiar circumstances, she tries to understand and adapt to this new world a little better.

A good example of Alice’s readiness to suspend the rules of her real world comes in the first chapter when she finds herself too small to reach the key lying on top of the table. When she sees a cake lying under the table, she doesn’t know whether it will make her smaller or bigger, but she does immediately understand – thanks to her previous experience in eating and drinking things here – that it will have some effect on her size. She also understands that regardless of what size she eventually gets to, she will be able to get through into the garden. Here she demonstrates her understanding of two important rules of Wonderland. One is that eating something that says ‘Eat me’ is not as stupid as it would be in the real world and may, in fact, offer a solution to her problem. The other is that there is no one right way to do things, unlike the real world where children are taught that there is a right way and a wrong way to approach things.

It is perhaps easier for Alice to question what she has been taught and adapt to new circumstances because she is a child and therefore less set in her ways than an adult. But Carroll’s books teach us that in a rapidly changing world, willingness to adapt and curiosity are great tools for survival.

Finding My Way Home

English: Illustration of "The Mouse the B...

I was away from this blog for a VERY long time. I got so busy with my work and the courses that I was taking that I forgot that I needed this space for myself. This blog keeps me sane and is my own special little place and I shouldn’t ignore it, should I?

Anyway, in the months that I was away, I got a full-time job with a social media agency, I completed some pending freelance assignments I had and I finished the Fantasy & Science Fiction course on Coursera. Woohoo! I didn’t do much reading, I must admit, besides whatever was assigned during the course.  But I did write some half-decent essays, which I though would be great to share with you guys. The first one is about The Grimm Brothers‘ Fairy Tales. A lot of the stories were very new to me, such as Cat and Mouse in Partnership, the Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage, Clever Grethel and Foolish Hans. On the other hand, there were others that were familiar, such as The Juniper Tree, Aschenputtel (Cinderella) and Hansel and Grethel. Nevertheless, it was great fun reading the old and the new and even more fun discussing the stories on the forums with the other students.

So anyway, the following is my essay on The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. I didn’t want to take the typical angle of these actually being stories for adults and not for kids. So I added a little twist by asking exactly why adults told each other these stories. At least, I think it’s a twist. You might disagree. Nevertheless, here’s my essay, for your pleasure (or not).

‘Amorality’ seems to be a feature of many Grimm Fairy Tales. Traditional morals and ethics, such as obedience, hard work, familial love, modesty and loyalty are not rewarded, and are often punished quite cruelly.  What is also interesting is that these stories feature no supernatural or fantastical elements.  The only exception to this is the use of talking or anthropomorphized animals as the protagonists.

There doesn’t seem to be a higher purpose to the stories than simple entertainment; if there are any lessons, they only teach us that life is unfair. For instance, if The Death of the Hen is analysed using the more conventional parameters used to judge fables, then it has no real meaning. A hen reneges on her promise to the cock and dies. But everyone (including the loving cock) who very kindly decides to give her a decent burial also dies at the end of the story. The actual meaning only comes through if one accepts that rather than teaching an ideal, what the story is saying is that it doesn’t matter if we’re good or bad; the end is the same for all of us.

Similarly if Cat and Mouse in Partnership had been written as a moral tale, it would have ended with the cheating cat being taught a lesson. Instead, the innocent and trusting mouse is eaten by the cat. In The Vagabonds, the innkeeper, who allows the animals to stay on his premises, is left cheated and wounded.

We know that most of these stories originated as tales that peasants told each other for amusement, even though the Grimm brothers themselves did not get most of them from that section of society. It is very likely then that the purpose of these stories was not to teach the peasants how to lead better lives, but simply to teach them to accept the harsh realities of their lives.

Saying it with Pictures: Fairy Tale Illustrations

The first book I remember reading is my big, heavy book of fairy tales. It featured tales from the Grimm and Perrault collections, as well as some taken from the Arabian Nights and classic American literature like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, besides stories like Johnny Appleseed, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and a couple of Brer Rabbit stories. Many were also sourced from traditional folklore collections of Spain, India, China, Italy and the British Isles.

Anyway, since I started reading for my Coursera Fairy Tales assignment, I kept thinking of the gorgeous illustrations of that early book. I loved it so much as a child that I felt I had to stamp my ownership all over it. It is, therefore, filled with scribbles and sketches (even moustaches for the bad guys). After me, my younger sister took over the book and she’s doodled in it too. Sometimes I feel bad that we didn’t take better care of this book: it’s spine has fallen apart and many of the illustrations are now marred by our once well-meant additions. Other times, however, I can’t help but laugh out loud. It’s a beloved book and in all its sketches and doodles and scribblings, it also contains the history of our childhood years. It shows who we adored  (Cinderella, over whose gorgeous dress we have drawn over and over again) and who we hated (the witch in Sleeping Beauty, upon whom we bestowed the fearsome teeth which were missing in the original illustration). Anyway, I decided to share some of these images with my readers.  I know most of you enjoy a good picture just as much as you enjoy a good story.

Hansel and Grethel:

Hansel and Grethel overhear their stepmother’s nefarious plot

An illustration from Sleeping Beauty: notice the witch’s new and improved fangs

From The Golden Goose

Cinderella dances with her prince

From The Fisherman and his Wife

From The Goose Girl: Notice the moustache on the girl at the back

Also from The Goose Girl

Studying with Coursera (come, join us!)

English: Illustration of "The Robber Brid...

Not for the faint of heart: “The Robber Bridegroom” from Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane, illustrated by Walter Crane, first published by Macmillan and Company in 1886. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes it seems like you just can’t take a break. I’ve been meaning to update this blog for so long, but something or the other keeps cropping up and I postpone my self-appointed task. Anyway, among the many, many things that have been keeping me busy, is this new course that I have enrolled for at Coursera (Go check it out here. It’s the bee’s knees!). This website is brilliant: it has courses on mathematics, culture, music, psychology, statistics, literature offered by places like Stanford, Princeton, Michigan U, John Hopkins, Duke, Edinburgh, Berkeley and Georgia Tech.  And the best part? They’re free!

 

So right now, I’m taking a course called ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World’ by the University of Michigan. Our Prof is Eric Rabkin, who’s already proved himself totally awesome with the first sort-of lecture (and an email he sent out to all the students). Anyway, this is a ten week long course, we have ten separate units on works by the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin and Cory Doctorow, and we have an assignment to submit on each of these units. As you can imagine, that is a lot of work and takes about 8-12 hours a week.  I’m not even counting the time we’re supposed to put into reviewing – and commenting on – the works of other students and participating in the forums.

 

The course only started this week, and already it’s crazy – at least on the forums. The first work that we’re reading is Household Tales by the Grimm Brothers and the edition we’re using is the one translated by Lucy Crane, with gorgeous illustrations by her brother Walter Crane.  Now, I’m sure most of us know that the so-called ‘Fairy Tales’ that we read as kids were not really meant for kids. Of course, their origins are shrouded in the mists of the distant past. It’s clear that they’re centuries old, but nobody can really tell where they came from (there’s this brilliant essay that argues for French origins).  Anyway, it is generally agreed by all that these tales were originally told by peasants to amuse themselves.  The moral teachings that get attached to them were probably later German additions (again, read that essay. Please! I beg you!).

 

Anyway, I hope you were all fortunate enough to have read the stories as kids in their slightly less-mutilated versions as presented by the Crane siblings. And I certainly hope that you don’t still believe that the Disney versions are faithful in any sense to the plots or spirit of the originals. If you were unlucky enough to have only caught Disney’s brutal assault on those tales, then it might interest you to know that there’s a lot more murder, rape and cannibalism going on in the original stories than your tender hearts would care for. Yes, you read that right. Cannibalism. (Read this horror of a story called The Juniper Tree, also known as The Almond Tree, which unsurprisingly fell out of the popularity charts quite some time back.)

 

So, back to gushing about the course: I’m already learning a LOT of new things. And new ways of looking at familiar stories.  The forums are super active, with new threads of discussion being added  everyday. To be honest, it’s a little difficult to have something useful and enlightening to say about every story in the book, but a lot of the students seem to be trying very, very hard. We’ve already discussed what the stories tell us about gender, why so many of them feature deception and cheating, and why most of them are so violent. One discussion was about the significance of the colour red in Little Red-Cap’s attire and whether it stood for her budding sexuality; another was about looking for vestiges of ancient, pre-Christian religious practices in the stories. I tell you, it’s all simply fascinating!

 

Since the course started earlier this week, admissions are of course closed for now. But if Prof. Rabkin does bring it back later, do be sure to check it out.